“Patrick, could you please go downstairs and bring up a case of peaches from the storeroom,” the short haired Asian woman behind the counter asked. “I need two cans for Mrs. Velazquez.”
“Sure thing, Mrs. C,” the blonde haired teenager said as he stopped stacking the shelf he was working on and headed for the basement stairs.
Less than two minutes later, Patrick Kerrigan returned from the basement with a small cardboard box in his arms. A quick slice with the box cutter he always carried in his pocket took off the top of the box and he placed two small cans on the countertop.
“Thank you, Patrick,” Lynn Chen said as, after adding the cost of the canned fruit to the bill, she added the last items to the large paper bag along with the rest of her customer’s order.
“I’ll put these on the shelves after I finish with the soups,” Patrick said as he returned to the task that had been interrupted.
As she handed the Hispanic woman her change, Lynn thought again how lucky she had been the day five months ago when Patrick had walked in off the street after seeing the help wanted sign in the window. She never had to ask him to do anything twice and most times, he anticipated what needed to be done before she did and just went ahead and did it.
Two years earlier, Lynn had inherited the small grocery store from a great-uncle who had passed away with no closer relatives. Despite Mr. Chen’s loudly expressed desire to turn a quick profit from the unexpected inheritance by selling both the business and the two-story building that had come with it, Lynn had refused to do so. In her eyes, the marginally profitable business was her chance to finally have something that was totally hers. Her husband of nearly twenty years wasn’t happy with her decision, but that had hardly been the only thing he’d been unhappy with of late, at least as far as his wife was concerned.
Philip Chen and Mei-lin, as she had been known back then, had been married in 1958, just a month after she’d passed her seventeenth birthday. Less than a decade before, her family had fled mainland China following the collapse of the Nationalist government with little more than the clothes on their back. Despite his being fifteen years her senior, Mei-lin’s parents saw Philip as a quite suitable husband, especially since his family was already established in the United States, with all the opportunities that might entail. At the time, her own opinion in the matter hadn’t been deemed important enough to be solicited.
Still, she had been raised to respect the wishes of her parents and so she married the man they had chosen. Ten months later, much to the delight of her new family, she presented her husband with twin sons, healthy boys to carry on the family name.
Most of the eighteen years since then had been spent raising those sons, during which time Lynn had also managed to educate herself in the customs and language of her new country. As her sons progressed through the various grades, she was able to get a good practical education that filled in the gaps in her own formal schooling.
None of which seemed to ever matter to her husband, who devoted most of his time to the restaurant he had started with his family’s help. An endeavor that proved so successful over the years that he was twice able to expand it. What attention he did give his still young wife was always centered on his desire to have more children, but after years of trying, it eventually became obvious that the difficult delivery of her twin sons had left Lynn unable to carry another child to term.
By the time her sons had grown to maturity, relations between the couple had devolved into a marriage in name only. Lynn eventually suspected that her husband now sought sexual gratification with some of the young girls that worked in his restaurants. Recent immigrants, his sponsorship had been one of the factors that allowed them to enter the country.
Therefore, when the grocery store had fallen into her lap, Lynn had leapt at the opportunity, despite her lack of business experience. Luck was with her, however, in the form of the two older men who actually ran the business for her great-uncle. They agreed to stay on for a few months while she learned the business.
Working seven days, and in many cases nights as well, Lynn learned just about everything she needed to know about running the store. In fact, she went so far as to practically move into the small three room apartment above, spending more time there most weeks than at home. Her confidence in her abilities grew monthly so when her instructors eventually decided that it was time for them to go, she met their announcement with far less trepidation than she might have originally imagined. What she hadn’t realized at the time was that outside forces would soon erode the confidence she felt.
Realizing that she couldn’t continue to pay the salaries that the two men had been earning, Lynn instead looked to hire a teenager that would be willing to work for less. Posting a notice at the local community center, she was certain that she’d have no problem finding suitable help. In fact, only a day later she had two young men apply for the position. So eager had both of them been, she had been hard pressed to pick between the two. In the end, she had just gone with the one who had applied first.
Then, to her surprise, the boy she hired quit after only a few days on the job with absolutely no explanation. She was even more confused when, after calling back the second young man to tell him the job was his if he still wanted it, a similar tale ensued. Over the following weeks, it quickly became a pattern as every applicant, no matter how eager they had been in the beginning, quit during their first weeks. One even walked out as soon as he discovered that he would be working for a woman. That seemed quite strange behavior for anyone in 1978.
Her suspicions had been aroused, however, when one of the applicants had slipped and referred to her by her Chinese birth name, which she hadn’t gone by in a number of years. That she had taken on an American name when the boys had started school had been one of the first points of contention between her and her husband. That he had long ago done so for business reasons didn’t seem to matter. In fact, since he was one of the few people who still called her Mei-lin, it made her wonder if he had anything to do with the rash of reluctant workers.
Sure enough, it turned out that Philip was indeed behind it, steering away most anyone who might be interested in the position as well as chasing away anyone who actually showed up to apply. After two weeks of working totally on her own, Lynn’s confidence had begun to give way to despair.
Then, just as she was beginning to think that she would have to give in to his desire to sell her inheritance after all, in walked Patrick Kerrigan off the street to enquire about the help wanted sign she had forgotten about putting in the window weeks before. The seventeen year old had recently moved in with his grandmother following the death of his mother. His father, Lynn would later learn, had walked out on his wife and two sons soon after Patrick was born.
Before that day, Lynn had never considered that she might look beyond the local Chinese community for help and now she felt quite short sighted for thinking that way. Still, she also felt she was obligated to warn the tall, at least to someone who was only five foot one, young man that going to work for her might cause him trouble. The athletically built teenager had been unfazed by the warning and said he really could use the job. Reluctantly hiring him, Lynn also told him that if events changed his mind, she would understand. Events that took only a few days to unfold.
Lynn had been watching through the store window that morning as two local teens approached Patrick when he crossed the street on his way to the store. She recognized one of them as the boy who had known her birth name; Philip Wu had been his name. Fearing that violence was their intent, the older woman started to head outside to try to prevent it. She’d only gone two steps when she saw the boy she’d recognized grab Patrick’s arm when he tried to just walk past him and his friend.
To both her and the Chinese boys’ surprise, her new employee executed a self-defense move that left Philip flat on his back on the concrete sidewalk. Patrick quickly turned to face the second boy, but he had quickly decided that he didn’t want any part of what was happening and ran off. Once his partner was back on his feet, he seemed to decide that as well, taking off in the same direction as the first.
When Patrick walked into the store a few moments later, he didn’t even mention the altercation until Lynn brought it up, saying that she had been watching at the window. The teenager shrugged his shoulders and said it hadn’t been a big thing. When Lynn said otherwise, adding that he could’ve been hurt, Patrick replied that his older brother had been with the Rangers in Vietnam and had shown him a few moves.
That incident proved to be the last of her husband’s harassments since he was unwilling to go beyond simple intimidation. Especially after he learned that Lynn had been so upset by what had happened that she’d gone and consulted a divorce lawyer to see what exactly her rights were if she chose to go in that direction. That had led a worried Philip to promise not to further interfere in any of her business affairs. Eventually they worked out an understanding between themselves, which included her moving into the second floor apartment full time.
.... There is more of this story ...